Commuters on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza.

Commuters on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza. Eric Risberg/AP

Is This Office the Future of Government Work?

Seoul's "smart work centers" give overworked public-sector employees an alternative to long commutes.

SEOUL, South Korea — The red-brick low rise building on a quiet side street in this bustling city doesn’t look like much on the outside. But the sleek offices inside have completely changed Chung-won Lee’s quality of life.

Lee is a government labor lawyer. Like thousands of people who work for the Korean government, his daily routine was upended recently when his ministry moved out of Seoul to a new capital in Sejong City, two-and-a-half hours away. Many of those workers, Lee included, chose to keep living in Seoul instead of moving.

Rather than waste all that time commuting, Lee works out of the offices here three times a week.

Smart Work Center, Seocho branch, is equipped with open cubicles, glass-walled private offices, state-of-the-art video conferencing capabilities and an airy break room with refreshments. Each desk comes with a computer and photocopiers; printers and stationery are also available.

It may be one of the most quiet and pleasant office environments in all of Seoul. And any government worker can use it, so long as they’re not required to be in Sejong or anywhere else for face-to-face meetings.

"Health is a big concern for someone in their mid-50s like me,” says Lee, whose drive to the work center takes 30 minutes. “Discovering that I could work here has made a huge difference in my life.”

To reserve a seat, Lee has to book online in advance, then check in at the reception desk once he arrives at the center. He prefers working out of the center’s private offices, so he can make phone calls without disturbing the other workers. “Around 80 percent of my duties involve in-depth reading,” he says, motioning to the space around him, “and this is a wonderful place to get that done.”

“It’s made me so much happier.”

A Rough Move

Seoul’s residents have a reputation for being early adopters of personal technology, so it stands to reason that they also would be early adopters of what may be the office setup of the future.

The Korean Ministry of Security and Public Administration runs nine smart work centers in Seoul, plus one in Sejong and four more in other cities. A major catalyst was the government’s move to Sejong, started in 2006.

The idea was to relieve some of the congestion that plagues Seoul — the metro area has about 25 million people — while putting a little more distance between the government’s administrative center and North Korea. The National Assembly, the president’s executive office and diplomacy- and security-related agencies will stay in Seoul.

Despite talk of a spectacular launch of a shiny new self-sufficient capital, the reality was that when it became time for the tens of thousands of government employees to move to Sejong, most had to leave their families behind in Seoul due to spouses’ jobs and childrens’ schools. Many jobs also entailed weekly, if not daily, visits to Seoul for work purposes.

The smart work centers were a response to help smooth out bumps in this transition. A big driver was security. Owing to tensions with North Korea, all government agencies use a heavily fortified intranet; officials can’t even check their email from outside an office. When workers based in Sejong had meetings in Seoul, they had to make it back to their Sejong offices to report the results of the trip. Starting in 2010, smart work centers gave them a place to check in from the field.

More recently, however, the centers have become part of a national strategy to create more work-life balance in Korea’s overwork culture. They’ve become an integral part of making commuting easier for workers like Chung-won Lee, whose lives now revolve around two cities 120 km apart.

Even for workers who never leave Seoul, they’ve become useful. Seoul’s metropolitan government, which tends to follow the national government’s lead, set up a smart work center for its own workforce (city workers are also allowed to use the national government’s centers).

Just within Seoul, hour-plus commutes are typical. The hope is that municipal employees will work from centers closer to home, saving themselves commuting time and giving them more time with their families. Corporate conglomerates such as Samsung, SK, LG and KT also have begun offering smart work centers for their employees.

The Beginning of Change

The move to smart work centers would be a big change for office workers anywhere in the world. But it was an especially big change in Korea. The word noonchi is used to describe the office culture here. It means that if your boss is still at his desk at 6 p.m., you can’t go home. Smart work centers disrupted this dynamic.

“In the beginning, it was so difficult to get people to use the centers,” says Jong-Sung Hwang, who was the assistant mayor of Seoul City IT development from 2011 to 2013. Hwang now heads the Big Data Center of the National Information Society Agency. He says at the time of launch, the smart work centers were utterly incongruous to Korean work culture.

“There is a ‘collective work’ mentality and culture in Korea,” Hwang says. “At the end of the day, if a few people have not finished work then other people in the department feel obliged to stay at the office as well.”

“If an employee told the supervisor that they’d be working at a smart work center instead of coming back into the office, then the supervisor would immediately think they were going to slack off.”

When the agencies finally began to move to Sejong in 2012, however, workers had no other choice but to use the centers on their work trips to Seoul. And once the first few employees began utilizing them, word began to spread.

“It’s amazing how a culture can seem so ingrained it’ll be impossible to change, but within a year, it can change organically,” says Hwang. “It really surprised me.”

Read more at CityLab .